Hello Hello Hello

When I lived in Pasadena, I was rudely awakened one morning to the sound of pounding on my door. I had been working late nights trying to finish up schoolwork, and was not entirely coherent at that point. Nevertheless, I opened the door only to be greeted by a man who shouted "Buenos dias!" in my bleary-eyed face. I think I grunted in response. Upon realizing that I would not be a good recipient for his proselytizing, he muttered "Um, read your Bible," and walked away. I nodded, closed the door, and went back to sleep. I've told this story quite a few times since then, always to big laughs, but I think something even funnier happened a couple of days ago.

Two weeks ago, I moved from the apartment with the Scary Stairs to a much bigger place a few blocks away. The new place has numerous advantages (and some quirks), but one of them is that we now enter the house through the indoor stairs, and our front porches look out over the street. There's no access to the porch, other than through the house (where we keep the doors locked). Or so we thought.

At 7 a.m. on Friday morning, I awoke to hear a man's voice in the house. While there is a couple that lives below us, they have not come into the house without letting us know, and the man never comes alone—always with his wife (it's a Khmer privacy/propriety thing, which I'm thankful for). So as I became increasingly aware of what was going on, I realized that The Voice kept repeating only one word, "Hello, Hello, Hello." My bedroom has a window that looks over the dining room, so I peeked my sleepy face out to find… a man! He was standing on our front porch, peering through our window (thank goodness for the bars on it!), trying to get our attention. As soon as he saw my face, he started to speak Khmer.

Now, my language proficiency is increasing, but 7 a.m. is decidedly not my best hour for Khmer. So I wandered downstairs attempting to figure out a few things. 1) who this person was; 2) why he was standing on my front porch; and 3) how he had arrived on the porch.

When I finally made it down the stairs and tried to talk to him (briefly wondering if I should unlock our door and let him in—early morning safety decisions are tough, I tell you), he indicated that I needed to go all the way downstairs to open our gate for someone to come in. Um, sure. Apparently I am very obedient early in the morning, because I did what I was told and found… yet another man, who wanted to come upstairs and visit us.

The second guy, at least, had a purpose. The windows in our apartment are great, but they don't have any screens. We asked for screens when we moved in and the landlord told us they would have to be specially made. No one mentioned that the man who was going to make the screens would show up at 7 a.m. (without warning) to measure the windows. Still, there he was. We somehow managed to have a conversation in which I learned what the cost of the window screens would be (though who was paying for them was a bit ambiguous) and in which I agreed that he could return the following day (at a more reasonable hour). He's been back again this morning (Saturday), around 9:30, and accompanied by the woman from downstairs (our landlord-liaison), and is supposedly making another appearance at any moment to actually add the screens.

This time, I'm awake and ready for him. Although I still haven't figured out how the other guy made it onto the front porch to begin with. That's an investigation for another day.


Stories We Tell

I am a professional storyteller. I answer questions, talk about my experiences, and share about the history of Cambodia. It requires a lot of stories, many examples, and some creative thinking. I help put out newsletters—those require stories as well. Some of these are told unconsciously, some require more planning, but all are in pursuit of educating, moving, or even persuading people. Still, sometimes I pause as I’m writing or thinking about what to tell and consider: what stories should I tell?

Cambodia is an interesting place; a country at a crossroads, really. There are stories here of devastation, of trauma, heartache, and disaster at the hands of brutal governments. There are stories of recent wounds, of an HIV/AIDS pandemic, of poverty, of mothers and children dying from preventable causes. And there are stories of hope, of a church that is growing, of lives that are changing, of transformation happening. Which are the stories I should tell?

At a glance, the answer is easy: all of them. Yet, I find myself more and more questioning my motivations in storytelling and what I hope to gain by sharing other people’s stories the way I do.

On one hand, I know that it is important to educate people about the history of Cambodia, about the problems that the country faces, and about why Cambodia is the way that it is. People need to know; there are so many who simply have not heard about the Khmer Rouge, about years of civil war, about this small nation sandwiched between two more well-known countries.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that communicating the needs of Cambodia means being sensitive to the way such communication shapes ideas and feelings about the objects of that communication. Amidst a culture of fatalism, telling stories of need, stories of hurt, stories of desolation perpetuate the idea that Cambodia is a country that is forlorn, desperate and helpless, full of weak people who cannot save themselves. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but all too often I see pictures of big, sad-eyed children, or hear people say, “Well, it’s just so sad, isn’t it?” that I wonder if what I do is really helping or not.

Sometimes I think it boils down to three questions.

Do we tell stories of the past to inform, stories that might help people understand but might evoke sadness, pity, or even guilt?

Do we tell stories of the resilience of the Cambodian people, stories that remind the audience of a tortured past and demonstrate how far Cambodia has come?

Do we tell stories of the future of Cambodia, stories that offer hope for the future and a glimpse of the potential that exists here?

I suspect it is a mixture of all three.

I wonder, also, what it is that people want to hear. Do we want to feel sad, to have our heartstrings tugged, or are we so accustomed to these feelings that they wash over us without truly impacting us? Do we want to hear about the past and the present, about transition and change, to be simply updated on what is going on? Do we want to hear stories of hope, stories that might push us to take risks or invest in something as unknown as the future of a still-unstable nation?

My own Kingdom vision is to be more than a reporter, more than a storyteller, to be someone who invites others into the process. I don’t merely want to update, to inform, but to ask people to support, to visit, to love Cambodia—the difficult parts and the delightful parts. Perhaps it is because of my own struggle to love a nation that has so much potential and so much failure at the same time. I want to tell stories that impact; I want to be a person of impact.

Yet, at the end of the day, I can look around me and see the subjects, the objects of my stories. I can look into their eyes and ask if I have respected them, honored them, and loved them by telling their stories. I think God is calling us to be people who tell stories; telling our personal story, telling stories of His faithfulness to others, telling the story of salvation. Still, we have to choose wisely. Which stories do we tell? Moreover, how do we tell them well?


Love Love Love

Once a month, I submit a reflection for a weekly newsletter sent out by my church in California (Lake Ave. Church). In lieu of an original blog post, I thought I'd share what I submitted this week.

I was eating lunch in the villages with our Khmer staff a couple of months ago when they gently reprimanded me. We were eating something called dtroukouen, or morning glory. It's a green vegetable, pretty much a water weed, and it's usually stir fried with garlic in oyster sauce. This simple dish is one of my favorites, even though it sounds disgusting. As we came up to the table, I said (in Khmer), "Oh! I love dtroukouen!"

"No, Kate," they said to me (in English). "You don't love it. You can't love it."

And they were correct. I can't (in Khmer) love dtroukouen.

You see, I used the word srolein, which means "to love." As in, I love you, Je t'adore, Te amo, etc. But when you talk about food in Khmer, srolein is incorrect. You simply don't love food. You can only cholechet it.

In its own right, cholechet is a pretty interesting word. It means, literally, to bring something into your heart, or to like or prefer it. You can cholechet food (and people, by the way). You're supposed to like food. But you aren't supposed to love it.

It was a startling reminder to me of how much language affects the way we think about things. And by things, I'm talking about how we describe our relationship with God. I mean, I can tell you that I love God, but you already know that I love a water weed stir fried in oyster sauce. So why would you think that I feel strongly about the relationship I have with the Creator of the universe? Love, used colloquially, is the same word in English; we don't differentiate our love for food, cars, or big TVs from our love for the Lord. I know it's a matter of degree, and that no one would really think that I love dtroukouen as much as I love Jesus, but take a minute and consider how often you tell people that you love something (other than your family, friends, or significant other).

Still thinking? Run out of fingers to count?

I'll be honest. I do it a lot. I particularly love music. And I love tacos. But if you take those things away, I can live without them (a blander, quieter life, it's true). Yet it's not only how I describe my relationship with God, but how I think He feels about me that's impacted. We tell each other, "God loves you." It's true. God loves you. But not the way you love nachos, or 24, or the Lakers. His love is not simply a preference for us, or a desire to spend an hour with us on Tuesday nights. His love is ah'ja, as the Khmer say, the best, highest, most awesome love there can be.

In our attempt to describe the love of our Father, we've had to use a word we've cheapened with overuse. What would happen if we used the word "love" a little less often? What if we really believed that God loves us—a love like we've never experienced before? I think it would change us, change the way we love others, change the way we feel about receiving love. I think it would be pretty ah'ja.


How It Feels

As English speakers, we tend to use a lot of superlatives. You're the best, we say to people who help us. That movie was the greatest, we remark casually to a friend as we leave the theater. These kinds of statements (which I am guilty of making) diminish our ability to convince people that we've really had a significant experience. It's like we're constantly the Boy Who Cried Wolf (or Wolfiest?)

Anyway, all of this is to say that I had one of the scariest experiences of my entire life a week ago.

I was driving with our new Partnership Intern, Katie, from our apartment to a house where we were house-sitting for a few days. The house is only a few streets away, and the roads are all familiar. It was about 10 p.m., and we had been out for a few hours (I had my hair cut) and had just picked up a bunch of Katie's stuff for the week. I was turning left at a darkened intersection when Katie gasped. It all happened quickly. I spotted the motorbike, slammed on the brake, and the moto crashed into the side of our car (an SUV). He had been speeding, without his headlight, and even now, he hit the car so fast and so hard that I can only recall a vague outline of his face. For a few long moments, I was afraid I had killed a man.

Praise the Lord that he got up. We could smell the alcohol soon after the crash; our windows were rolled down; this probably saved Katie and I from being cut up by glass when the side mirror came through the open window. There was blood and broken glass all over the road, and crowds were forming. I called a friend to come, and refused to get out of the car (or move it, as some passers-by urged me to do). In Cambodia, an accident can quickly turn into a mob scene, and I was incredibly frightened of what would happen next.

Turns out the driver and his passenger were in a gang, and shortly after my friend came, the rest of the gang rolled up on their motos, claiming that they had "caught the car who did it, and [we] wouldn't get away." Some police came (not the traffic police) and told me I could leave, but we had to wait for the insurance adjuster to come first. When he arrived, he told us it was too late to do any negotiating and we would have to wait until the next day. The car went to the police station to be evaluated, and my friend drove us home.

It's one of those circumstances where culture comes into play in weird ways. I know, in my head, that the protocol for car accidents is very different here. There are negotiations, and fault is not based on any kind of scientific measurements (no CSI here). Yet as we pulled away, I said, "I guess we pray for justice," thinking that we could pray that the police would see that it was not my fault and I would be cleared of responsibility. And my friend said, "Well, you have to be careful. That guy probably has no money and he's injured. It's his fault, but how will he pay for the damage to the car or his doctor bills?" I walked away unharmed, the car was taken away in the care of the insurance company. The guy I hit? No protection other than what the gang provides.

I felt awful in that moment. I felt awful for hitting him in the first place and awful for wanting it to be his fault. Awful that this kid (he was pretty young) was out late drinking and carousing with his friends when he should have been home sleeping. Awful that his parents would get a phone call that he was seriously injured. Awful that I had damaged a work vehicle. Just awful.

I've had to examine my motives since then. Do I want to be cleared of fault because I will feel less guilty? It was an accident. There was nothing that could have prevented it (on my side) and nothing about it can be changed. Is it so that the financial repercussions will be less? The insurance company has covered everything. And lastly, most convicting: Do I want to be cleared of fault because of my own pride? Do I want "justice" in order to maintain a good driving record and my own assurance of my driving skill?

I sometimes toss these words around, "justice," "equity," "fairness," because I think they are important, because they make societies run smoothly. But the justice I should be seeking is the kind that comforts the broken, the kind that provides for those in need. I shouldn't want justice because it makes me feel good, or look less guilty, or because of my reputation.

In the end, they said it was the other guy's fault. They also said that I turned improperly (not at a 90 degree angle). Since then, I've had to drive numerous times, and each time is scary and makes me feel vulnerable. I am more sensitive to the dangers on the road, more attuned to the fact that I am always a heartbeat away from injuring someone, from the circumstances turning on me once again.

But isn't that always the case? Aren't we always only seconds away from something going wrong? In Cambodia, on the crazy roads, the answer is yes. More and more, I'm realizing that we truly rest in the grace of God, in His protection. "For in Him we live and move and have our being," says Paul (Acts 17:28). It's true, that verse. So when our Cambodian driver today made us pull over and pray before starting our hour-long journey, I bowed my head, folded my hands, and said "Amen." And then I continued to pray as I rode nervously in the front seat, watching in fear as he narrowly avoided collisions, pedestrians, and ramming the car in front of us.